Chapter 41 – Messy Problems

‘A problem? What kind of problem?’

“Well, I say problem, but maybe it’s nothing. I mean, how can you really know something is a problem; after all, it hasn’t hurt us yet.”

‘Orca, get to the goddamn point.’

“Right, the point, getting to it. I’ve finally got into the network proper, but this place is a swamp, let me tell you. There’s supposed to be an administrator here, you know, someone like me. Only, there isn’t, and clearly hasn’t been for a long time.”

‘What does that mean, for us specifically?’

“It means the entire facility is basically running without oversight or regulation. This is like a wild horse, see, it knows it’s supposed to move, but it doesn’t know where. So instead of going somewhere specific, it runs around in circles or wherever it feels like.”

Ares continued down the long narrow pathway, without any incidents. As of yet, dungeon delving was unseemingly unexciting. ‘That could also work in our favor. Without sentient intention, it won’t be able to target our specific weaknesses, right?’

“Kinda,” Orca responded, halfheartedly, “But, let me tell you, I’ve known a few of these training grounds administrators, and they were among the most crafty and sadistic minds you could possibly imagine. Any one of them, worth their own core, would have set up systems in place in case they weren’t able to continue operations, and such systems would not be the gentle kind.”

‘Could that be what happened to the other group?’

“Possibly, but that would not explain why it happened now. If it is that unorthodox an event, I suspect something has gotten into the lower floors, something that isn’t supposed to be there.”

Pondering this, Ares finally made it of the corridor, and into another white room as barren as the first.

“Wait,” Said Seila, and they all stopped. “Be very careful, Construct. Traps are common in the dungeon, even on the test floor, so take care in your every step. Everyone else, follow closely in the footsteps of the construct.”

While carefully stepping forward, Ares spoke to Orca in his mind ‘Can you detect any traps, scan the area, or something?’

“If I could do that, Master, then what would be the point of a training ground?” Orca asked jovially, “I only have guest-level access to the systems. Even if I could tap into it and award myself with administrator privileges, it would take longer than finishing the first floor, and I would probably trigger about a gazillion traps and defensive mechanism.”

‘Nothing’s ever just easy, is it…’

“Nope. Good luck, master, I’m rooting for you!”

He took another step, carefully feeling his way forward. The tiles on the floor were as white as the wall, separated into large squares. One the whole, they seemed firm and steady, and nothing appeared amiss. That being said, he knew enough about tales of dungeons from Earth to know, never to underestimate that which appeared harmless. Ares made it all the way to the end of the chamber, before something finally happened.

With a massive boom, an iron slab fell down in front of him, blocking off the pathway forward. Turning about, he saw a similar slab blocking the exit, just behind Saber. The cat had drawn two shortswords, held out at the ready to either side, Patiently waiting for… what?

So… what’s going to happen?

It was Alai who noticed it first, and she reacted with a screech worthy of a siren. Ares followed her line of sight, and saw four panels in the wall above them had moved aside, evacuating small dark shapes in droves.

“Get them, get them, kill them!” Alai shouted as she put her hands into the bags at her belt to retrieve flagons with glowing contents.

“In a circle, keep it tight and protect our center” Seila shouted, tracing runes in the air and blasting the black shapes as they began descending down the wall. Ares soon recognized the shapes as arachnid creatures, and they were endless. He stepped back to stand side by side with Cedwin and Izzy, the former eschewing the bow slung over his back for a pair of knives and his boots, while the latter held her massive monkey wrench in one hand, and rummaged around in her belt pouch with the other.

Ares elected to use his feet, activating [Edge] and slicing into the oncoming horde as they approached on the floor. One suddenly jumped onto him. He caught it and crushed it between his fingers, arachni innards spewing all over. The sticky liquids left did not hinder him terribly, but he noticed a notification telling him of the poisonous nature of the stuff in his console.

“Poison,” he yelled, keeping his words brief. The others understood immediately, and Cedwin cursed vehemently as he sliced up another pair of encroaching spiders. Izzy, meanwhile, had thrown something in front of her: a small ball that was now whirling in between the spiders at a rapid pace. Everywhere the little ball passed, spiders were cut into pieces by the small blades protruding from its axis of rotation. Izzy herself stood her ground and bashed away those arachnids that came too close with her wrench –an unusual weapon she wielded with surprising grace.

Ares did not have much time to study the fighting of the others, and barely caught any sight of Saber, who flitted about like a ghost, slicing and dicing up any creature in his vicinity. He had enough trouble with keeping his side of the formation, since none of his skills of weapons were really suited to combat many smaller opponents. Using his hands and feet were the only real option he had, and that made it an awkwards dance as he cut through the floor as much as he did the little critters.

He cut up another one, and heard a sizzle as a nearby spider was hit by one of the small fireballs his mistress could produce, just as Alai shouted again. “Above! Big ones!”

She was right. Huge limbs pierced openings above, followed by fat bodies of four massive spiders. Ares reacted fast. Kicking another spider in two, he armed his blaster, set it to its lowest strength, and fired off a shot at the spider coming from his side. The shot landed with a sizzle, and the spider reacted a little, but it clearly was not enough.

Kicking the strength up a few notches, he fired off another shot before the creature got close, inflicting a puncture wound that sent the creature squirming. While it did not kill the beast, it gave him an opening to close in, stepping on a few spiders on the way, and using his edged legs to cut the massive arachnid in two.

Turning on the spot, he saw the other three being dealt good damage by the others. Saber was a whirlwind, stabbing and cutting around an increasingly confused opponent, and Izzy had unleashed another of those rolling balls, which were slowly cutting the spider apart, starting with the legs. The only one having trouble was Cedwin, whose knives did not allow him enough range to get in close. Seila was supporting him though, and the spider was already burning from several spots.

Seeing as the stream of smaller spiders had depleted, Ares elected to support the two elves. Like with the first, he closed in and cut it in two from the side, ensuring that none of the ichor got splattered onto the two closest.

As quickly as it had begun, as quickly did it end. They stood in the middle of the room, surrounded by the corpses of spiders, and those who had survived were now fleeing back into the shafts after the bigger ones died.

“Excellent,” said Seila, breathing hard, “That was a good beginning. Alai, see to the wounds. Everyone else, rest and get your strength back. We will proceed when we’ve got back our breath.”

Since catching his breath was superfluous, Ares walked over to Izzy and picked up one of the ichor-covered balls. It was essentially a small wheel with a rotating core, the blades in the centre now retracted. Just looking at it, Ares was not completely sure how it worked, but it was a fascinating piece of equipment.

“It’s a minor construct,” Izzy said with pride in her voice, “I made it myself. It mostly relies on magnetism as its motor components, and only requires a small siphon of lifeforce to work. I call it Little Eye, because it looks like an eye seen from the side, see.”

Using that sense he had picked up in the forest, Ares recognized the slight thread of lifeforce between Izzy and that little wheel. And indeed it did look like an eye when one looked at it from the side, the eye of some very creepy creature.

“I suppose that is just barely passable,” said Alai, as she sauntered up and inspected Izzy for damages, “Did any of those things sting you, Dear?”

“I’m not your ‘dear’,” grumbled Izzy and withdrew from the avore’s touch, “And it’s not the only thing I’ve got. I am apprentice warsmith; I’ve got stuff to make your jaws drop!”

“Yes, yes, you’re big and strong, I know,” said Alai in the most patronizing voice Ares had ever heard –and he had lived most of his life in a hospital being patronized everyday– as she took hold of the little gnome and inspected her thoroughly before letting her go with a sigh. “You’re all good. Only Cedwin got poisoned, and luckily it’s not a poison I haven’t seen before.”

The elf laughed and boisterously claimed he would now be immune to the poison once endured, something Alai refuted to no avail.

“Anyway, we did well for our first battle,” Said Seila, nodding towards the exit that was open once again. The slab behind them was still barring their way back, and so there was only the way forward. “It will only get harder from here on out, so stay vigilant, especially you, Construct! Who told you to leave the formation just to take out the enemy from close range? If you’ve already got it pinned, then just keep shooting it!”

Ares wanted to say he was saving his ammunition, but seeing the expression on her face he just growled a, “Yes.”

“Thats: yes, mistress, to you.”

He repeated her words with his teeth clenched, then immediately turned his back on her. “I think it was a very dashing move,” said Alai as she approached and put a hand on his shoulder, “You can come save me like that any time you want, Construct.”

“Name Ares,” he said, shaking off her hand and facing her as well as the group, “I am Ares. No Construct.”

The others looked surprised, until Alai laughed a perly laughter and approached again, this time placing a hand on his artificially muscled chest, “Very well, Ares, I say it again: you should come to me anytime you want.”

“Alai! Don’t be crude,” Seila shouted, her face growing red.

“See,” Alai said, leaning forward and whispering in his ear, making it look like she was kissing him on the cheek, “She does care, she just has a hard time showing it.”

“ALAI!” Seila was proper furious now, Ares could feel it through their link.

“Sorry, Seila dear. I just can’t stop myself,” Alai laughed and patted Ares on the cheek before retreating with dancing steps to the rest of the group.

“You have a named construct, Seila?” Cedwin asked, taking Alai’s place in front of Ares. “It’s just a name,” scoffed Seila and waved away the concern, “What does it matter whether it has one or not.”

“Remember, My Lady,” said Kindon, who had been completely stationary for the entire encounter, “Your father did ask you to use Ares’ name, and no longer call it merely ‘construct’.

She snorted, but, seeing the looks from the others, relented with a royal wave of the hand, “Fine, this is Ares, my construct. Are you happy now? Call it whatever it want, just as I will continue to.”

He felt the note of stubborness more than he heard it in her voice, but it escaped no one else in the party. “In any case,” she quickly continued, escaping the awkward situation, “Let’s move forward.”

They did so. The narrow passage continued into another room that, like the first time, shut them in entirely once everyone was inside, opening up to panels this time. Two burly creatures, which the others identified as ‘Oggers’ appeared, but with Ares holding down one on his own, the others took care of the first before helping him finish off the second.

Fighting bigger opponents was definitely more easier for him than smaller ones; he would have to acquire a remedy for that. In all the excitement, he had paid no attention to his lifeforce gauge, and was surprised when Orca pointed out to him that he was at a 100%, but had not leveled up.

‘What’s going on?’

“Oh that’s perfectly normal, Master. While you are approaching level 3, your unit is still just at level 1. That means your unit does not have the capacity to compress the lifeforce gathered before you’ve increased its level, or until you are exposed to some outside force that can suppress it for you.”

‘No, not that.. Well, yes I suppose that explains something, but I was thinking about the amount. I was nowhere near level 3 when I woke back up; I mean, I even burned some of my lifeforce back before I accepted the lifelink. I haven’t killed nearly enough creatures to explain that gap.’

“I thought you knew,” Orca said, surprised, “I registered a huge increase just two days ago while you left the unit on sentinel mode. I figured you just extracted some on the other side, probably from a lesser lifeform.”

The image of Perci held up in the air by his own hand, red threads piercing through his skin, and the sweet, sweet sensation of depleting and crushing his core. There was no sense of guilt, just an overwhelming sensation of right as it obviously was the only natural course of action for such a lowly being to transgress upon him.

‘I can get lifeforce on the other side too…’ The discovery was definitely worth something. If only he was not so riddled with emotion and guilt on the other side… if only Sam was not there…

“Yes, of course!” Orca said, full of joy as always, stopping that very dangerous line of thought he had just been pursuing. Ares shook his head, mentally shocked at what he had been contemplating. He was Sam… and he was also Ares. These two were the two sides of the same coin, just like Felix had shown him.

This time the iron slabs stayed down, but the two opened panels did not close. The path was diverging.

“One way is as good as the other,” Seila said, looking back and forth, and as such we will simply go right. Construct, out front!”

There were no surprises down the new corridors. They arrived into new rooms, faced an opponent, then chose a new path between two or three possible. A single time they had to contend with a trap consisting of spikes erupting from the floor when the right tiles were stepped upon. Using Ares to soak up all the damage, the party quickly found a way through the room. Ares left there with pierced feet, and took delight in increasing his demand on the lifelink with Seila to repair the injuries.

After a few repeats of this pattern, they arrived at a chamber that was markedly smaller than usual. This one appeared to be an antechamber to another room, based on the massive door obstructing their path forward.

“This is it,” Seila said, putting hands on hips, regarding the door with obvious disdain, “The final chamber. We’ve done good until now, but this is the real deal. Those who can get past this point and explore the labyrinth below are true delvers, and it is there we will find real treasure.”

The others nodded, spellbound by the door and what it signified. “Make your preparations, we go in as soon as everyone is ready.”

Preparations did not take long. The group had sustained few injuries, and Alai was always prepared with remedies and bandages, ensuring everyone was in perfect fighting condition. The only time Ares had seen her flustered had been when the spiders first descended upon them.

“Everyone ready?”

No one spoke. The tension in the air was palpable, enough for even Ares to feel something akin to excitement. As the vanguard he stepped forth and puth his hands on the door. Without a sound, the massive door opened into the final challenge.